Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bela Tarr's masterpiece: The Turin Horse (2011)

Bela Tarr is a hungarian film director. For 30 years he has been tracing his own path in cinematic greatness with a vision, an integrity and perseverance worthy of a Bergman or a Tarkovsky. His new film "The Turin Horse" (2011) is a real masterpiece. The film's starting point is the following real event in the life of Nietzsche:

"In Turin on the 3rd of January 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansome cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse's neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words ("Mutter, ich bin dumm."), and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse."

So Bela Tarr with the pretext of continuing the story and finding out what happened to the horse and its owner, explores the philosophical depths of the human condition. In a recent interview, Bela Tarr says that "The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life, and the monotony of life. We didn’t want to talk about mortality or any such general thing. We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter... All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure."

The slow, glacial rhythm of the cinematography with minimal cutting between scenes together with the haunting minimalist soundtrack that blends with the constant wind sound in the background, have a strange effect on the viewer draging him into the room, making him a part of the preceedings.

Dialogue is sparse or even absent in the greater part of the film and it therefore comes as a shock when an outside character bursts into the confined world of the father and daughter to deliver a monologue. Everything that Bela Tarr wants to say is contained in this one or two minute monologue. It is immediately dismissed by the father as rubbish but as a viewer, these few words leave an indelible mark.

The way Bella Tarr films each scene is extraordinary because each silence is pregnant with alternatively absurd noise and meaning and every object in the camera frame is transformed by time, space, light and shadow into something symbolic, a key that unlocks the next level.

From an esthetic point of view, the camera angles and the setting of certain scenes seem to be inspired from the world of painting. From Vermeer, to Gustave Dore and from the "potato eaters" of Van Gong to Caravaggio they are all there. Take a close look for example at the way the father is filmed when awaking from bed. The camera is placed at the end of the bed and the viewer is not watching a film anymore but staring at Mantegna's painting "Lamentation over the Dead Christ" (1490). At other camera angles, it's the anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" (1632) of Rembrandt. The way the palinka bottle and glass are filmed on the table bring the photographs of André Kertesz to life. Then, in another scene, the photograph of the Appiani family tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy, by Demetrio Paernio, found on the cover of the "Closer" album of Joy Division, comes to mind. Or the photograph of Che Guevara lying dead on the stretcher. The references are endless.

Elements of Beckett and the existentialist theatre of the absurd can also be found in the chained relationship between father and daughter. The viewer feels paralysed by the harshness of everyday life, of every hour and moment lived under extreme conditions with eternal monotonous repetition of actions and events and no divine or other intervention to end the torture of Sisyphus. The daughter and the father some times take turns to stare out of the window for hours. We have replaced that window with a computer screen but nothing has changed fundamentally.

The critics that say that the films of Bela Tarr are dark, difficult and pessimistic are beside the point. What Bela Tarr succeeds in doing is breaking the narrative mold of modern cinematography, reinventing the power of the image and effectively creating a true cinematic experience that has been missing since the demise of Andrei Tarkovsky.


  1. I just saw this film in Toronto, and enjoyed your review. Thanks for the great write-up.

  2. Thank you for visiting my blog. I am glad you liked the post. I felt that I had to say something about this film which is destined to be lost somewhere in the cinematic commercial wilderness. By the way, I have found your blog extremely interesting and have now included it in my links. All the best

  3. I just saw this yesterday at NY Film Festival -- this film is so strong; I really enjoyed it. Thanks for posting.

  4. Εξαιρετική ανάλυση της ταινίας. Μόλις την είδα. Και θέλοντας να διαβάσω και σκέψεις άλλων, έπεσα στη δική σου. Ένιωσα πως όφειλα να σε συγχαρώ, αν και αν κάποιος μπορούσε να διαβάσει τη σκέψη μου, θα καταλάβαινε πως δεν το κάνω από αβρότητα αλλά από το φτηνό ελατήριο του ναρκισσισμού.

    Να πως μόνο πως διαφωνώ με κομμάτι από το premise του σκηνοθέτη.

    Πράγματι ισχύει αυτό:

    The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life, and the monotony of life. ... We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter... All the time.

    Όχι όμως για αυτό:

    ... makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.

    Αλλά γιατί όταν κάθε δευτερόλεπτο της ύπαρξης σου παλεύεις για την επιβίωση και μόνο, γίνεσαι ζώο.

    Η απουσία γέλιου, μουσικής, διαλόγου, φιλομάθειας, δηλάδή όλων όσων συνιστούν τον ανθρώπινο πολιτισμό, σε κάνουν ένα ακόμη θλιμένο ζώο.

    Στα πλάνα με τη φωτιά, θυμήθηκα πόσο μεγάλο ήταν το δώρο του Προμηθέα στους ανθρώπους, και πως αυτό μας εκτόξευσε ανάμεσα στα άλλα είδη.

  5. Σ' ευχαριστώ Punky για το σχόλιό σου. Η διαφωνία σου σηκώνει συζήτηση. Νομίζω ότι δεν μπορούμε να δούμε τον κόσμο σαν κάτι ξεχωριστό από μας. Στο τέλος εμείς είμαστε οι δημιουργοί αυτού του κόσμου και νομίζω ότι όταν ο σκηνοθέτης λέει “... their world” αυτό εννοεί. Εξαρτάται από τον καθένα από μας, να μην υποκύψουμε σε αυτή τη σαρωτική λαίλαπα, σε αυτή την απάνθρωπη ρουτίνα, σε αυτόν τον εκκωφαντικό αέρα και την σκόνη που μας μπλοκάρουν τις αισθήσεις και μας ακινητοποιούν. Η ταινία στοχεύει και σε αυτή την αφύπνιση από τον λήθαργο της καθημερινής επανάληψης μέσα στους στενούς ορίζοντες που εμείς οι ίδιοι έχουμε θέσει και αποδεχόμαστε με σκυμμένο το κεφάλι στις απανταχού Metropolis του κόσμου. Να είσαι καλά.

  6. I just finished watching Satantango. Marvellous!!!

  7. That is some feat considering that the film is almost 8 hours long! It seems that your patience was rewarded though...

  8. Your insights about the works of art replicated by Tarr are much appreciated. I just saw the film and was deeply impressed.

  9. 'Fetch wood and carry water'. It comes to this....a simple life lived well

    Thank you for the review

  10. Thank you very much Aristidis for your comment.